Want to Write Full Time? Get Cozy With These 5 Financial Realities

Want to Write Full Time? Get Cozy With These 5 Financial Realities

Let me start by saying that working for myself as a freelance writer is one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time, for a whole host of unsurprising reasons.

I set my own schedule. I have time and energy for creative projects I’ve long let languish. More often than not, I do the bulk of my work in my pajamas.

But despite my carefully-laid plans — arguably too-carefully laid, given that one of them involved moving back onto my parents’ property at 27 — my first full month of freelance writing definitely came with some financial surprises in tow.

Here are five things I wish someone had told me before I took the leap and became a full-time freelance writer.

1. Nothing is a sure thing

When transitioning from working on-staff at a publication to the freelance life, I did get one thing right: I made sure I had at least one solid, regular client who offered enough work to create a base salary before I left my office job.

I didn’t want to find myself sweating profusely and pitching into the wee hours the week before my bills were due. Even though I’m fortunate enough to live rent-free right now, I need a reliable income.

So I found a client who promised an essentially-unlimited amount of easily-written, pre-researched work, which would be paid out weekly (!) at a decent, per-word rate. It’s not glamorous to write; there’s no byline, and a lot of it is SEO landers and lead magnets. But it is easy to pump out, giving me great ROI for the time and energy required. And, as I mentioned, I was told I could pretty much write (i.e., earn) as much as I wanted each week.

There was, however, no formal contract. Which I thought was awesome, since it meant I could write less for them if I had a busy, successful week elsewhere.

Come to find out, the editor doles out assignments on Wednesdays…which significantly limits the theoretically “unlimited” amount of content I can write for them, since everything’s due Friday. And then I learned the company is in the midst of a big editorial shift…which translated to a couple of totally-dry weeks, which weren’t announced ahead of time.

In short, although it’s easy money, the gig turned out to be less stable than I’d first imagined.

And since I hadn’t anticipated dry weeks (and didn’t find out about them until they were already underway), I ended up spending some money I didn’t actually have.

Don’t do that. Obviously.

Also, try to negotiate some sort of formal contract whenever possible. If there isn’t one, don’t treat that client as a failsafe, no matter what kinds of verbal agreements have been made.

2. You may write now, but you’ll get paid later

One awesome thing about the above-mentioned client? They do actually pay out on a weekly basis, every single week.

This, I’ve learned, is rare. Invoicing is an imprecise art at best, and some clients will commit to little more than paying “within a week of publication,” which is, um, vague.

Don’t expect to see the payment for what you write today in your bank account tomorrow…or possibly even this month. And, again, don’t spend money you don’t actually have.

It can be disheartening to hustle without seeing the fruits of your labor for a while, but keep at it. You’re still earning money, even if you can’t watch your bank account fatten in real time.

3. Don’t get lazy with pitching

If you are lucky enough to get a super-solid, breadwinning contract, it can be tempting to rest on that reliable income and ignore opportunities to pitch elsewhere.

After all, pitching, as I’ve said before, is the worst. It’s time-consuming, labor-intensive and comes without any guarantees.

But it’s also super important. Pitching is the only way to expand your portfolio and your professional network, which will help you land bigger and better clients down the line.

So keep at it — even if you don’t absolutely need to do so right now in order to make ends meet.

4. Poorly paid writing may still be worth doing, but you need to think hard about it

You know that whole thing about “doing it for the exposure?”

It really, really sucks. But it’s also an actual thing.

When I (finally) started earning money for my work, I thought my days of writing for free were totally behind me. Not so.

Some unpaid or poorly-paid placements actually do help expand your readership and earn you more paid gigs down the road. Huffington Post, for instance, famously doesn’t pay its guest writers, but it’s a crazy-recognizable name to have in your list of clips.

That said, if you spend all your time on poorly-paid writing, you’re going to be poor, even if your portfolio is sparkling.

Think hard about the specific markets you really want to break into, and consider writing unpaid work for big names in those spaces. But don’t go overboard.

For example, when I pitched BUST and got an email saying the piece would work for the (unpaid) blog but not the print magazine, I was disappointed…but I agreed, glad to have the clip.

When I saw freelance “job” listings for outlets I’d never heard of promising pageviews rather than paychecks, however, I simply closed the tab.

5. Location independence is awesome, but traveling all the time can easily eat up your income

One of the main reasons I wanted to move on from my admittedly-awesome office job was to achieve total location independence.

However, the kind of travel I could afford to fit into my vacation days with my full-time salary is not the kind of travel I can afford now. (The fact that I’ve gone two months without taking a trip speaks to that reality — it’s been a long time since I’ve stayed still for so long!)

I’ve only planned two trips so far this year, and I’m already considering canceling one of them. I could probably afford it, but not if I want to (finally) pay off my car this year, as I’ve been promising myself for months.

Obviously, some of this is about learning how to travel as cost-effectively as possible. I am but a neophyte when it comes to remote nomadism, and lots of people have all the travel-hacking secrets to trotting the globe on a dime.

But if you’re dreaming of freelancing from a different world-class beach every week, you may need to keep on dreaming — at least for your first month or two.

Although I hope my own mistakes will help you, you’ll certainly encounter your own lessons along the way. But luckily, we’ve got lots of resources to help you get started on the right foot.

Here are four steps to take before you transition your writing game from side-hustle to full-time gig, and four ways to protect yourself as a newbie freelancer. And while you’re at it, check out this list of ways to become your editor’s favorite writer — which can help you win a steady clients and augment your professional network.

And when you do encounter your own inevitable snafus? Write about them! We all have the opportunity to help each other learn and grow in this whacky profession of ours.

Who knows? Someone might even pay you to learn from your amateur errors.

What did you learn in your first few weeks as a freelance writer? Let me know in the comments! Goodness knows I’ve still got lots of lessons left to learn.

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a (new!) freelance writer whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Penny Hoarder, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere. She lives in St. Augustine, Florida.

Filed Under: Freelancing
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15 comments

  • So true, Jamie! I’m a freelance direct response copywriter. I got my start with a course from AWAI that said “if you could write a letter like this one, you could earn six-figures as a copywriter.”

    Yeah. Let’s just say this income is not “automatic.” Some copywriters do make six-figures. Some even make 7-figures. (Yes, I know some of them personally.) But, raking in that kind of income takes time, persistence, a good bit of luck, and the right kinds of clients/projects.

    I think my rudest awakening as a freelance copywriter, though, was the vacation thing. I naively thought that I would be able to take off all the time I wanted, since I was my own boss. What I didn’t realize in the beginning was how expensive it would be.

    You see, it’s not just about the cost of the vacation. No. You also have to factor in lost income – yes, the money you would have been making if you were not vacationing. As a result, I’ve done some “workcations.” But real vacations… the kind I used to take when I was an employee… the kind where I leave my computer behind… are now rare.

    I miss them.

    • Thanks so much for reading, Deanna! Yeah, I’m already one of those people who brings her laptop with her everywhere, but it’s becoming clear that I’ll have to be much more firmly tied to it from here on out. Even this weekend, I’m planning a very short road trip — and I’m hustling my butt off to make sure I get everything taken care of before I head out, so I can have at least one full day off to relax!

  • Emeka Egwuda says:

    Jammie, that’s quite insightful! And I love your good command of language. But I should add that there’s no universal remedy when it comes to the plight of writers, especially as regards income generation and living wholly on one’s literary proceeds, whether you call it honorarium, fee, royalty, or anything. Factors such as environment and one’s network of clients play a crucial role.

  • Great article, and some solid practical advice for new or aspiring freelancers!

    Let me add another suggestion from my own experience: Never stop thinking of new ways of using your skill set to generate income, especially so-called “passive” income.

    I say so-called because no income is really “passive,” but some forms allow you to frontload costs during slow times while spreading out residual revenue over the coming months or even years.

    As an editor, my sources of passive income include ebooklets of journal prompts and writing exercises, as well as online courses for writers. As a writer, your sources may include ebooks on running a business or on best practices in copywriting. Heck, they may include that novel that’s been burning inside you for years.

    The money from such projects may come in trickles rather than torrents, but those trickles add up, and can come in handy during a dry spell.

    I wish you all success!

    Trish O’Connor
    Freelance Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
    http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com

    • Great point, Trish! Passive income is always exciting, even when it’s only a small stream. A good thing to brainstorm more about and delve into… Once things are more established on the active-income front. 🙂

  • Harish Desai says:

    I worked for an IT pro as a client in my first freelance writing gig. He used to help me a lot in doing my work. He used to tell me where to search out the content from to write for his projects. Additionally, he also used to tell me how to format my document. I enjoyed working for him so much that I thought that I would make him my first and long-term client. But, one fine day, he sent me an email that he did not have any more work to give me. This put paid to all my plans to have him as a long-term client.

    • Yes, it happens, and in the freelance world, all too frequently! A client’s needs change without warning, and a revenue stream evaporates.

      The old “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” maxim comes to mind. Sometimes we don’t realize how many eggs are in a single basket until it crashes to the ground.

      I hope you have been able to replace him with other clients. Best of luck to you!

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      Freelance Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
      http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com

  • Marcie says:

    On this topic I would recommend reading the book Quitter by Jon Acuff.

    • Thanks for that suggestion and I’ve been meaning to buy that book!
      I actually worked w/Jon Acuff at a copywriting gig about 10 years back. He’s a great guy and incredible with words.
      Thx,
      Elaine

  • I love this post! Thanks for sharing.
    I’ve also heard to try and have 6 months worth of savings in the bank before quitting the day job to go freelance/own your own business, but I’m still trying to get to that point.
    Excellent tips, thx!

  • This is good advice for new writers! I spent a long time preparing to leave my job and dive in to full-time freelancing. I was going to support the first couple of months with writing for a pay-per-content site until I had more clients to fill the time I hadn’t been able to fill with full-time work. Second week of freelancing? The site shut me down as a contributor with no explanation. The best-laid plans tend to be the ones that end up surprising you with failure! Thankfully after a couple of hairy months I stabilised and filled the gaps.

  • Ashkey says:

    Thank you very much for this information. I haven’t yet quit the day job and am just starting out to do content writing. I am clever and creative and I know I can rock it. But I am also a worry wart so I want to absorb as much what Not to do, as what To do.

  • Dana Sitar says:

    Great reminders, Jamie! Love that you included #5. Location independence is so tempting, but it’s a lot of work.

  • Niyati says:

    This is a great article. I’m currently stuck between pitching and not having a portfolio enough to pitch. I know I can write but then most places require a few links and I did the poorly paid work for quite a while which meant no links. Any idea what I can do to get out of this quandary?

    • The old Catch 22: Can’t find work until you have experience, can’t get experience until you find work!

      I suggest that you approach some nonprofits whose causes you support and offer to donate some writing. I’m normally against writing for free just for “exposure” for a for-profit business, because they certainly expect to be paid for their work, even when they don’t expect to pay writers for theirs. However, donations to charity are different.

      Treat it just as professionally as you would a paid writing assignment. Tell them a realistic fee you would “normally” charge, and speak with your tax preparer about whether you can deduct it as a charitable contribution. Do good work and meet deadlines.

      Best of luck to you!

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      Freelance Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
      epiclesisconsulting.com

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